Advocates for disabled optimistic that CLASS Act program won’t be scrapped

Advocates for the disabled are relieved by the Obama administration's decision to release its latest analysis of the healthcare reform law's long-term-care CLASS Act next month.

The controversial program's fate was in doubt last week after its actuary said the Community Living Assistance Services and Supports Act office was shutting down and the administration acknowledged it was reducing staff working on the program. Late Wednesday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced it will soon be releasing its recommendations on how to proceed.

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"We recently received a report from the actuary retained by CLASS which provides the actuarial analysis of a number of potential CLASS benefit plans. This report will be included in its entirety in a comprehensive review of our work on CLASS over the last 18 months," Assistant Secretary of Aging Kathy Greenlee, who oversees the program, wrote in a blog post.

"We are now reviewing the findings of the actuarial report in combination with the legal and policy analyses that we have undertaken as part of our careful exploration of the many aspects of operationalizing the CLASS program. Once this work is complete, HHS will issue a report along with recommendations about how to proceed. We are on target to release our comprehensive report by mid-October," she added.

Championed by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), the CLASS Act program has come under intense criticism from Republicans and some Democrats who think it's not sustainable. The voluntary program allows people who pay monthly premiums for five or more years to get daily payments to help them pay for long-term care if they become disabled.

Advocates say the health law gave regulators great flexibility to set premiums and eligibility criteria to make the program work. They also say the need is great: only about 8 percent of Americans have long-term-care insurance and often end up draining the Medicaid program for low-income Americans when they become disabled.

"We appreciate the administration's transparency in releasing the work that's been done," said Connie Garner, a former Kennedy staffer and architect of the program who now heads a nonprofit coalition of disability, aging and employer groups that's trying to get business and workers to sign up. "Our message to the president is that we expect him to meet his commitment to implementing this law and to use the flexibility that Congress gave him to make the changes to make it work."

Garner said the program might have to limit eligibility at first to get off the ground, and grow more generous over time. She acknowledged that the CLASS Act might not work, but said the administration should give it a try because it doesn't have access to actuarial data — except from the "clearly challenged" long-term-care industry — to accurately predict its future.

"If it doesn't work, try something new," Garner said. "We do a lot of the same old, same old, and look how well that's working."